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HIStalk Interviews Todd Johnson

February 24, 2010 Interviews No Comments

Todd Johnson is president of Salar, Inc. of Baltimore, MD.


Give me some background about the company and about yourself.

The company was founded in 1999. It has been split in half, in terms of our corporate development. In the first half, we were really a healthcare IT consulting services firm, and got involved into all sorts of very interesting things, including helping design and implement the technology surrounding the Johns Hopkins point-of-care IT solution. It was a challenger to Epocrates in terms of point-of-care, clinical content, and medication references. As well as building an EMR at the Centers for Disease Control.

We did a whole wide variety of things, but honed in on a series of products in 2004-2005 that are really focused around inpatient physician documentation and charge capture. Essentially, capturing H&Ps, daily notes, discharge summaries, consults — reducing transcription costs and increasing physician charge capture, and ultimately benefiting HIM. 

We migrated the entire business into the focus around acute care physician documentation and charge capture. We’ve had long success with some of the really large academic medical centers. Now we’re getting success with regional medical centers, community hospitals on the East Coast, and the Midwest.

We’re growing the company organically … the traditional garage shop story. A couple of buddies and I graduated college and sat down and said, “What do we want to do with our lives?”, built a company, and we’re still at it.  We’re growing and we’re having a heck of a good time doing it.

What’s your answer to the problem of getting physicians to document electronically?

It all boils down to physician adoption. When we started our technology solution that we now call TeamNotes, I think we were very lucky in that we were extremely naïve about physician documentation. We rounded with physicians for months and noticed a couple of things. 

We noticed that there’s a wide variety in how physicians like to document, in term of their workflow. Some like to take notes on rounds and sit down and dictate it later. Some like to do their notes while they’re on rounds and do their billing later.

We wanted to encourage a system that had a wide variety of workflows as well as a strong user interface. I think paper is seen as a naturally crappy way to document. But I think the benefits of paper are overlooked. It’s fast and very acceptable. If you’ve got your daily notes rolled up in your pocket, for you, as an attending, it’s a very quick thing to access and update those. It certainly falls short in terms of legibility and distribution to others.

What we tried to do was focus on current practice. What were the really good things about paper?  We built our entire platform — in fact, our entire corporate culture — around physician adoption. 

I think, traditionally, most EMR providers look at physician documentation and think that perhaps the primary incentive is payment. Payment is clearly an obvious incentive, but I really think that speed is the number one incentive. That becomes the barrier. You have to put in the hands of the physician something that is fast and effective. 

If you can do that, then the other clinical and financial outcomes occur as a result. But by focusing on speed first, that’s how you harvest physician adoption.

Most of the companies out there started with an emphasis on billing.

Yes, and we’ve been doing CPT coding and physician charge capture for ten years. It’s interesting when you look at the CPT guidelines — how do you make that into a note? You get a lot of feedback over the years if a note is designed too much by a compliance group, particularly if you go into a hospital.

Let’s just say they’re all on paper. Go into a hospital that’s been RAC’ed by the OIG. You start to see these paper templates that have been designed by billing staff that clearly have a design towards CPT guidelines and compliance with CPT guidelines.

The general sense you get from a lot of the attendings is that you’re taking something that was originally intended to be a communication from provider to provider about the status of a patient and turning it into a billing process. The question is how can you automate billing; automate CPT billing charge capture and PQRI capture; but at the same time, put something that’s a meaningful document, in terms of communication, from one provider to the next?

I think that’s why you’ve seen a low adoption rate. A structured documentation tool –  certainly in general medicine — it’s because they don’t tell the story. They need to tell the patient’s story. How do you tell the story on an admission note and simultaneously extract the location, quality, duration for a very complex case? I think that becomes the nuance of designing a documentation solution that works.

When you look at what is important to physicians, what’s the relative importance of application design versus usability versus the form factor that they use?

I think it’s the critical piece. Application design, for us — again, going back to the genesis of this software — we assumed we knew nothing about physician documentation. So rather than building a physician documentation tool, what we built was really a tool kit. What that means is our customers can create any form they want in Word or Visio or Adobe or Excel, whatever tool they’re comfortable with.

Then we essentially overlay the clinical data from the EMR onto those forms. That process of creating your H&P and your daily note and your discharge summary, as well as designing the workflow between those notes — that is the heart of the process. That is the number one reason that we’ve got happy doctors running around and we do these big bang implementations covering the majority of discharges across multiple facilities in a single week. It’s because the physicians are involved in the user interface and the user design.

In terms of form factor, I guess I interpret that to be a question, really, of devices. We see a wide variety of devices. We had originally designed TeamNotes for the tablet PC environment. We thought tablet PC was going to be the winning platform for acute care documentation. I think what we’ve learned is that in some instances, that’s correct. Some doctors like a tablet PC … like it a lot. 

Others prefer to dictate and you just drag it on a desktop. Others use laptops on wheels. I think what we find is that, across our different customers, different strokes for different folks. although tablet PC probably makes up less than 15% of our customer profile, which is in retrospect, it makes sense.  But I think I would have been shocked if you told me that five years ago.

You mentioned the difference between a form metaphor versus a screen metaphor. Why doesn’t everybody do it that way?

I don’t know. I think that if you were to survey doctors that have tried structured documentation and not been happy with it, you’d probably end up with a lot of feedback along the lines of, “Well, it took too many clicks and it was too onerous to drill down.” That’s the type of stuff you would hear.

A form metaphor works extremely well, as you can see the entire note on a single screen. You might have to scroll, you might have to jump around on it, but we provide navigational aids for it. It’s a very natural environment and it’s one that folks have been used to using for a long time. It works. 

I think the real benefit is in either environment, you really have to capture structured data, so a form is nice because it’s easier to look at. It’s easy to absorb, it’s easy to edit. But at the same time, if you can capture structured data from it, you’re serving the purpose of really contributing to the electronic medical record, automating coding — all those other things.

I would assume a non-form based physician documentation solution could work. It could work well, so long as it’s designed to be very, very fast for the provider and easy to update and get in to. 

The thing about acute care, as you well know, is your receiving information throughout the day. It’s not like you’re sitting down and just building out your notes start to finish and then signing it and moving on to the next. Certainly some providers work that way, but more often than not, we’ll see providers start their notes in the morning, go on rounds, update their information while they’re on rounds, and maybe sit down and complete them later. They’re always jumping back in. The navigation of the application needs to support that workflow pretty well.

What about the problem of having so much documentation captured that the important stuff doesn’t stand out?

I guess we learned, with our customers, that documentation — you don’t start and finish it. For customers that do it right, documentation is a process of continuous improvement, both in clinical terms as well as financial and administrative. I think we have seen some customers begin to design documents that become too detailed, or contained too much information to get lost in translation.

I think you need good organization and a good dialogue, continuously, about how do we make these better?  Then, provide the tools for rapid turnaround on that. I think one of the things that’s really fascinating about a Salar implementation is that it’s not uncommon for us, for instance, to go live with a service line, then you spend maybe two or three weeks designing their notes with them and getting them to the point where they own that note. If it’s their agency and their daily note, it’s better.

But you don’t get the really great feedback until after they’ve gone live. So you go live on a Monday morning, and you get this wonderful feedback from the physicians on rounds. Our process is that we modify the tablets. We put them into production on Tuesday. Then on Tuesday, the physicians now see that they can impact the solution, that they have ownership of the documentation, but that the system supports rapid cycles and rapid iterations.

By the end of the week, you’ve arrived at a place where you’ve got clean, concise, quality notes that are good for patient care, but also good for efficiency and timing and that support the billing process. That rapid turnaround time is really important. Hopefully, it’s honing towards better documentation over time, not worse.

How would you characterize the need for systems to offer that level of on-the-fly changes?

I think that’s one of the reasons why we win business. The speed of, not only the documentation itself, the physician on the unit floor using it — but the speed to provide feedback and changes. It’s absolutely critical. Physicians sometimes get a bad rap for being impatient or just tough to work with. We’ve never found that. I think our doctors have always provided good feedback and they get a good product in a timely fashion.

We’ve designed all of our form design tools for our customers to use, as well as our professional services staff to use. Literally, they are drag-and-drop tools. If you can create a form in Microsoft Word, you can create an interactive clinical note that has integrated labs, pharmacy, and allergy test results. It does CPT coding, captures PQRI, and integrates with the workflow of physician service for carry-forward data in a matter of hours. I think that’s just a huge, huge benefit, and we’ve seen that serve us very well time and time again; and serve our customers very well time and time again.

Sometimes we go into an opportunity with a customer and they set the bar low for themselves. For instance, they’ll say, “You know what? We just want to start with daily notes first because we think H&Ps and discharge summaries are tougher.” But they will exceed their own expectations, and very quickly within going live, tackle all the major documents that they need to do throughout their day, and do them in a very comprehensive fashion. Because the tools to support not only the creation, but the editing and migration of those, all exist and are pretty easy to use.

Can you give me an idea about what kind of technologies you used to accomplish that?

We’ve always built on the Microsoft stack. We believe very much in Microsoft as a technology provider.

The general concept is all these structured clinical elements, which exist in the EMR, and I think more and more, we’re seeing a refinement on those. We like the CDA specification, but more specifically, we like CDA for CDT; which is real refined around what structured elements really ought to be captured on their daily notes and our H&Ps, etc.

We’ve got tools that allow you to take any form … let’s assume you’ve created a form in Microsoft Word and you really like the layout … and then can drag and drop CDA for CDT elements. For instance, here’s a chief complaint field, and here’s where we’re going to put some of our family history components, and this is where we want labs. Really, to drag and drop those things much like you would in Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Visio.  We try to keep it as simple as possible for our customers.

Everything’s revolving around Meaningful Use, which has nothing to do with charging, but clearly hospitals have their own incentive to worry about that.  What are you seeing as the hot buttons for hospitals with regard to charging?

Not so much charging, but documentation, I think, we see as a real big opportunity. 

Meaningful Use has really these two components. One is using certified technology and the other is actually utilizing it. We’ve been able to demonstrate time and time again — in fact, with every customer we’ve acquired — strong benchmarks of use. I think one of the unfortunate things with Meaningful Use, from my perspective — I think it’s probably very different from some of your readers — is that the bar seems to be set a little bit low, in terms of what is the expectation, in terms of the volume. How many notes should be captured electronically and structured, etc.

But I think achieving a wide adoption of certified tools can occur. With Meaningful Use, we like some of the standards around interoperability. We hope to see CDA for CDT become, maybe a platform for interoperability for documents within the hospital walls that would really promote the use of this EMR overlay solution as a way to achieve physician adoption very quickly.

You mentioned that it’s an overlay solution. How do you convince a hospital that’s already paid to implement Cerner or Meditech or Eclipsys to bring another vendor into the mix?

I think what we’ve found is that many of our customers have tried and failed to use those tools. They’ve failed to achieve real physician adoption. I think a lot of hospitals believe, probably rightly so, that they can get their employee physicians on board, or there’s a subset of doctors that they can get engaged. But the speed of those tools has generally been frustrating to a lot of physicians out there.

What’s the cost of not having it online? What’s the cost of not having a comprehensive electronic medical record? A lot of hospitals invest in a core HIS, and then they struggle with the fact that, “Oh, you know what? I’ve got to purchase an entire silo for my emergency department because they’ve got a much better documentation tool set.”

What if you can use a product like Salar to fill all those gaps, but ultimately contribute to your core EMR? So every time I sign a note in Salar, it’s using all the same interfaces and the notes are ending up in Cerner, Eclipsys, etc. and really contributing to a comprehensive electronic medical record?

I think a lot of our customers had been through that and they see that there are better tools in the market to achieve physician adoption. They see Salar as a vehicle to do that very well. At the end of the day, they’re reaching their goals having a comprehensive enterprise electronic medical record.

How will you take what you’ve learned at sites like Hopkins and George Washington to create an off-the-shelf product and a sustainable business?

The way we’ve designed our application, we’ve got a standard code set of all our customers. The variation is forms. What do the University of Massachusetts forms look like compared to the forms at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center? We’ve now worked with so many different specialties, so we’ve built this really nice library of content and expertise.

So the question, I think, really, is do you package up content for distribution on a wider scale? It’s actually a very interesting question because on one hand, I think content can accelerate the process. If you look at a company like T-Systems, they’ve done exceptionally well at developing expert content for the emergency department setting. I believe they’ve monetized that very well. I believe simultaneously, though, that the process of designing documentation and designing templates is what achieves physician adoption.

Boilerplating content for distribution, you miss an opportunity to really engage the physician and get them on board. I think that’s something we’re working on. While we don’t see, today, us dropping in plug-and-play — you know, here’s your trauma content, or your nephrology content, or cardiology, or internal medicine. We see more of a dialogue with our customers that says, “Here’s internal medicine notes from four different hospitals.  What do you think? Pick and choose pieces from this that you think is going to be good for you.” We may see more of a content distribution model downstream as we grow, but I don’t think the barrier is packaging up the solution so much as getting the right channels to market.

Any concluding thoughts?

We’re seeing a really exciting time not only in our direct business, but we’re now seeing EMR companies come to Salar to OEM our products. It begs the question of what’s the long-term strategy for hospitals that have a single-vendor solution. 

We want Salar to be inside every single vendor out there. We’ve announced four different OEM distribution deals where our partners are taking our core intellectual property and embedding it into their EMRs and making that the core platform for their physician documentation moving ahead. But both in our direct sales and our OEM sales, we’re seeing a lot of growth.

I think it’s really fascinating looking back from 2005 forward. When we first created this technology, I think we were way ahead of the curve. Most of the hospital marketplace was scratching their heads and say, “Geez, physician documentation isn’t on our radar until 2010 or 2011.”  Well, the combination of time passing, as well as the government stepping in and increasing incentives to move quicker, is creating a lot of urgency in this marketplace. 

It’s really an exciting time for us. We’re seeing a lot of growth.  We’re already seeing 30% revenue growth over the last year and it’s only a month and a half in. It’s an exciting time for us and we’re just happy to be a part of it.

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